—Francois Truffaut, 1970
L’ATALANTE is one of the supreme achievements in the history of cinema, and its recent restoration, playing this week at the Music Box, offers what is surely the best version any of us is ever likely to see. Yet the conditions that made this masterpiece possible were anything but auspicious.
When Jean Vigo started to work on his first and only feature in July 1933, he had no say over either the script or the two lead actors It wasn’t that his producer was unsympathetic; on the contrary, Jacques-Louis Nounez had financed Vigo’s 44-minute ZERO DE CONDUITE— anarchic, fanciful, and provocative depiction of a student uprising in a French boarding school-the previous year, and he hadn’t interfered with any of Vigo’s creative decisions But ZERO DE CONDUITE had been banned In its entirety by France’s board of censors (it wouldn’t open In France for another twelve years), and in order to recoup some of his losses, Nounez felt that he had to exercise a few commercial restraints on this talented but volatile twenty-eight-year-old filmmaker— the son of an Infamous slain anarchist-who had grown up hiding under assumed names.
In fact, Nounez
specifically requested that
Jean brings his bride on board the Atalante (the name of his barge), which is also occupied by an old sailor named Père Jules, a cabin boy, and a dog. The only convict in the plot apses when Juliette meets a young sailor at one of the ports who offers to Introduce her to the pleasures of the city. Jean manages to chase him away, but Juliette, still drawn to the city’s attractions, escapes anyway, and Jean, upset by her departure refuses to go after her. Some time later. Père Jules defies Jean’s orders and goes out looking for Juliette, finds her, and brings her back. Life on the barge resumes, and Juliette be- comes reconciled to her fate.
The popular French stage and movie actor Michel Simon, who had already appeared in four Jean Renoir films, was selected to play Père Jules, and the German film star Dita Parlo, who would subsequently play a lonely war widow in Renoir’s LA GRANDE ILLUSION, was cast as Juliette; this package and the script were handed to Vigo, along with a request to include some songs in the film Vigo—who was delighted with the choice of actors but much less happy with the story-agreed to these terms, requesting only a few minor changes in the script, such as the substitution of a peddler for the young sailor who tempts Juliette, the substitution of several cats for a single dog. and a some- what more upbeat treatment of the ending.
To help him adapt the script, Vigo hired a fiend who had been assistant director on ZERO DE CONDUITE, and he filled out the remainder of the cast with other friends, most of whom had acted in ZERO as well (Jean Dasté, whom he cast as Jean, had played the only sympathetic schoolteacher in the previous film). He also hued the same cinematographer (Boris Kaufman), composer (Maurice Jaubert). and lyricist (Charles Goldblatt) who had worked on ZERO. After several delays, shooting finally started in mid-November.
Nounez was quite happy with the results, but his associates were not, demanding several cuts Vigo reluctantly agreed to one major change—an extensive reduction of Père Jules’s search for Juliette in Le Havre—and the results were screened on 25 April 1934, for company representatives, exhibitors, and distributors. Most of them disliked the film, and Gaumont then decided to cut it much more drastically, rework the score In order to feature a current popular song (“Le chaland qui passé,” or “The Passing Barge”) and retitle the film after the song. At most, only two or three sequences in the film were left intact; this “final” version opened In mid-September at a single Pans theater and closed after a couple of weeks.
A few days after it closed,
Attempts to restore
Some of the decisions made
are questionable—I’ll be getting to a couple of them later-but shouldn’t deter
anyone from seeing this version, which runs for eighty-nine minutes (the
precise running time Vigo wanted) and contains about ten minutes of new
footage. With the possible (and debatable) exception of a new
print of CITIZEN KANE. which will be showing here in May, I doubt that a
more beautiful film will be showing anywhere in Chicago this year
Significantly, none of Vigo’s four films, including his shorts A PROPOS DE NICE
(1929) and TARIS (1931), survives in its original form today. But the fact that
Vigo still remains one of the key figures in the history of cinema based on a
total oeuvre that runs less than three hours gives some hint of how
indestructible his talent remains and how trivial certain losses and
alterations are in the broader scheme of things. Even though I’ve never seen
the truncated and mutilated LE CHALAND QUI PASSE that opened in 1934, I’ve
little doubt that
What does this genius consist of? It’s easier to define In ZERO DE CONDUITE , an exhilarating celebration of nonstop rebellion against bourgeois propriety and authority informed by free-flowing poetry and fantasy But having recently seen that film and L’ATALANTE back to back, I’ve come to the conclusion that the much more “conventional” and commercial L’ATALANTE is an even greater work, for reasons that are less immediately obvious.
Terms like “surrealism”—or
“realism,” for that matter-prove to be
wholly inadequate in dealing with Vigo,
despite the fact that he was a strong admirer of both Luis Buñuel’s surrealist
UN CHIEN ANDALOU (“Beware of the dog—it bites,” he declared in a 1930 lecture)
and the realist work of Erich von Stroheim. A first-degree reading of ZERO
might conclude that it’s a surrealist film with realist touches, Just as L’ATALANTE might initially appear to be a realist
film with surrealist touches But both descriptions fail because they imply a
consistent surface speckled with “touches”;
ZERO and L’ATALANTE both begin With shots of steam, vapor, and/or fog- a magical summoning of forces that is grounded in the real, which happens to be a train in ZERO, the barge in L’ATALANTE. (Boris Kaufman, who shot both films, later won an Oscar for his work on ON THE WATERFRONT, where he was still working wonders with ethereal textures; a key sequence in a park between Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint is virtually orchestrated by fog and the smoke from a burning trash can.) These openings make one think that from this point on anything can happen, but that the world it will happen in is stall and always the world we know, however unexpected its form. In ZERO, the school principal may be a fastidious, bearded midget and the drawing on a schoolboy’s notebook may suddenly turn into an animated cartoon, but the characters and settings still belong to a recognizable and even familiar universe. This is not simply an ordinary place where strange things occasionally happen, but a poetic universe we all instinctively know.
In the supposedly more realistic universe of L’ATALANTE, the barge that travels up and down the river docking at real French towns and cities seemingly holds no cargo at all-save for one fleeting line in the dialogue (“Does unloading take long in a city?’’), none is ever seen or mentioned-yet Jean clearly makes his living from some kind of cargo, and at one point even comes close to being fired in a company office in Le Havre, until Jules speaks on his behalf. In an ordinary film, this would be a lapse in credibility, but lapses are as foreign in Vigo’s mature filmmaking as touches, and the film’s cargoless barge, nevertheless bumming with both possibilities and actualities is as real—or as unreal, for that matter-as any working boat in movies.
This sense of possibilities and actualities apples to many other aspects of L’ATALANTE as well. When I first saw the new version at the Toronto film festival last fall, I was struck by what seemed to be the film’s bisexuality—not a bisexual program of any sort, but a treatment of the character’s sexuality that goes beyond the usual heterosexual norms and definitions. We know, for in- stance, that Jules has some sexual interest in women-we hear him allude a couple of times to someone named Dorothy, see him about to ravish a buxom fortune-teller, and clearly sense his attraction to Juliette as well-but this surely accounts for only part of his sexual nature. I was struck, for starters, by the highly charged ambiguity of his relationship to Juliette—a mysterious kinship that is implied in the similarity of their names-which comes to the fore whenever their responses to certain things suddenly comrade One scene begins with him demonstrating his skill In using her sewing machine. She then gets him to model her skirt while she adjusts the hem (an experience that fills him with delight), and the sequence ends with them admiring one an- other’s hair and Juliette combing his hair after he has stripped off his shirt to show her his tattoos.
In another scene, in his cabin-where he introduces her to the exotic trinkets he has collected from all over the world on his sea travels—she comes upon a pair of human hands pickled in a jar. Jules indicates that they belonged to a friend who died three years ago (we see his photo) and that they’re all he has left of him—a piquant line that suggests that the friend may also have been a lover. (Just before this, to demonstrate the sharpness of his stiletto, Jules deliberately cuts his knuckle and then licks the wound-at which point Juliette instinctively licks her lips.) Jean suddenly enters, obviously upset by the intimacy he recognizes between Jules and his wife, and starts complaining about the cabin’s messiness and the smell of the cats; before he starts breaking dishes and a mirror in a rage, he asks Jules to identify a nude black woman in a photograph, and Jules cracks, “That’s me when I was young “ In some ways, the behavior of the peddler (Gilles Margaritis) whom Jean and Juliette encounter in a cabaret is equally outrageous. “How nice of you to come,” he says to them when they arrive. “We were waiting for you to start the party. Bring on the biscuits, as dry as the duchess’s very dry pussy.’’ When with Juliette in a song. he quickly interjects “You’re pretty, too’’ to Jean, and he wiggles his ass shamelessly when he’s dancing with Juliette a little later his marvelous sales patter, which mainly takes the form of a musical number, also implies a certain link between Juliette’s libido and consumerism that is played out elsewhere in the film) There’s certainly no question that the sensuality of Vigo’s work as a whole-and especially the carnal Impact of flesh touching flesh—has a special aura and potency. The key moment that kicks off the schoolboy’s full-scale revolt in ZERO DE CONDUITE is a fat chemistry teacher stroking the hand of an effeminate, long-haired boy named Tabard—the character in the film who, it is said, most represents Vigo, and who responds by screaming at the teacher. “I say shit on you!” (Vigo’s Catalonian father—a controversial anarchist and newspaper editor who was strangled in his prison cell by unknown parties when Vigo was twelve-had composed a headline for his socialist paper which said exactly the same thing, addressed to the government. in large letters And at the age of seventeen, following his first arrest, Vigo’s father changed his name, as an act of defiance, to Miguel Almereyda, the last name a deliberate anagram for a phrase that translates roughly as “There is shit.”)
Vigo’s biographer, the Brazilian film archivist P. E Salles Gomes, provides us with one intriguing anecdote that relates to Vigo’s attitudes about sexuality Just after the end of shooting, when Vigo and his actor Jean Dasté were invited to lunch by Margaritis, they arrived arm in arm, both whimsically dressed, according to Margaritis’s mother, who was cooking the lunch, “in women’s summer frocks, with bare arms and legs, wearing small hats on their heads, one of them apparently in an advanced state of pregnancy.’’
This carnivalesque gesture
seems wholly compatible with
At one point, we’re told by
P. E. Salles Gomes, when Vigo was scouring Parisian flea markets to fill
Jules’s cabin with exotic trinkets—he also called on friends to contribute
several objects, and even stole some wrought-iron wreaths from the Montparnasse
cemetery—he was especially interested in finding one of Alexander Calder’s
mobiles. The usually astute Salles Gomes concludes that
Even without the Calder
mobile. many of the shots in the film are simple
awestruck discoveries, and the sequences that coagulate around them are often
ones that simply arose from these discovered. Consider the numerous cats of
Père Jules’s that roam about the barge, affecting the events of the film in
numerous ways. We know that they have an autobiographical basis (Almereyda was
a fanatical cat lover, and the single-room attic apartment in which
During a pivotal and
wonderful sequence in which Jules magically succeeds in repairing an old
gramophone, there’s a beef shot showing kittens crowded around the machine as
if they’re listening intently to the record playing, one of them standing
inside the shell-like loudspeaker. The gramophone and its repair originally
served a minor and quite different role in the scene, but when the kittens
unexpectedly became fascinated with the machine between takes,
During the same sequence,
there’s a somewhat jarring cut from Jules, the cabin boy, and Jean (brooding
over Juliette’s absence) on deck to Jean rubbing his cheek against and lacking
a large block of ice on land. The logical place for this startling and moving
shot is a little bit later, after Jean has docked the barge at
My only other major objection to their work (which involved about forty editorial changes in sound and/or image from previous versions) is their artificial prolongation of the final shot, through a technique called step-printing, in order to make Jaubert’s score conclude at precisely the same Instant that the shot does—a kind of symmetrical neatness that seems counter to Vigo’s own looser sense of balance and closure Letting the music run past the shot as it did quite pleasurably and naturally in the earlier versions, would surely have done his memory no disservice. (Gracefully sculpted around the action throughout, Jaubert’s wonderful score also plays off certain natural sounds—using the barge’s engine as a metronome, much as he used a tram engine at the beginning of ZERO.)
I can’t hope to do more here than hint at a few of the aches in L’ATALANTE, including the lasting impact it has had on subsequent generations of filmmakers (There’s an extended homage in Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS, for instance; and I think it could be argued that practically all of the good things in Truffaut’s work-most of them realized most fully in his early features—would have been inconceivable without Vigo’s direct influence.) In conclusion, then, let me focus briefly on three aspects of the film that deserve more detailed consideration than I can give them here:
1. Michel Simon as Père Jules offers what is Just about the most wondrous character acting I know of in movies; but even this performance would be substantially less than it is if it weren’t for Vigo’s superb sense of how to integrate him with everything else in the picture. At once the film’s only pure infant and its only pure adult, he embodies a kind of stream-of-consciousness, polymorphous-perverse behavior that perfectly exemplifies the film’s capacity to integrate fantasy and realty. His two extended scenes with Juliette in the barge’s lower cabins are perhaps the richest examples of this—delirious, free-form two-part inventions whose pivots are either props or phrases by Juliette that send him off into fresh paroxysms of play or demonstration.
The only remote equivalents to Simon’s character in the American cinema are the crotchety comic parts played by Walter Brennan in Howard Hawks’s To HAVE AND HAVE NOT (a rummy named Eddie) and RIO BRAVO (a cripple named Stumpy), both of whom play a major role in defining (not to mention cussing out and irritating) and ultimately uniting the other characters. But Brennan never quite transcends his function as comic relief, whereas Jules is much more central. James Agee compared him to Caliban, but in other respects he is even worthy of Falstaff.
2. Conceivably the most erotic sequence in the movie is one that poetically and rhythmically intercuts between Jean and Juliette, each of them in separate beds many miles apart, suffering from insomnia and longing for each other. Another powerful two-part invention, as symmetrical as Vigo ever gets, it rhymes Juliette and Jean fondling their own torsos and musically plays with their restless movements in and out of the frame; both characters are speckled mysteriously with polka-dot shadows, implying a common ground to their individual torments and desires—a mutual passion that makes their subsequent reunion as exciting and fully satisfying as any last-minute Hollywood clincher.
3. Apart from its loose narrative construction, L’ATALANTE is far from being an art movie in any ordinary sense. If It follows the conventions of any genre, it comes much closer to being a musical at several critical junctures- including the climactic moment when Jules finds Juliette in a record parlor, listening to the sailor’s song that serves as one of the score’s major themes.
Just as the movie confounds our usual understandings of realism and surrealism, documentary and fantasy, and sexuality with its various prefixes, it also collapses what we ordinarily mean by “commercial” and “popular” on the one hand “arty” and “experimental” on the other. What category can we hope to assign a movie whose beauty and greatness finally rest on the simple gratitude it makes us feel for being alive?
— Jonathan Rosenbaum,